This leading lady knows real success is all about simple, time-tested values.
Just say the name “Reba,” and people likely know who you’re talking about. Reba McEntire, the best-selling female country singer of the 20th century, is a member of that elite group of performers who need no last name or introduction.
For much of her career, McEntire’s persona has been larger than life, a sequined diva known for her extravagant concert productions. But the “queen of country music” is no prima donna; she learned her work ethic early as the third of four children born to Oklahoma cattle ranchers. And her hard work paid off: In her 35-year career, McEntire has racked up 33 No.1 singles, 13 platinum albums, more than $55 million in sales, two Grammys among dozens of other music awards, acting credits on stage and screen, as well as business interests that include her own lines of apparel and home decor. She has balanced all that with marriage and motherhood.
But along the way, she admits temporarily losing sight of herself. “It’s like you have to go through everyone else’s version of what they think you are until you can find yourself,” she tells SUCCESS.
At the height of the craziness, McEntire was doing a show “more elaborate even than Michael Jackson’s or Madonna’s concerts,” she says. “I had three separate packs on me: one for my earpiece, one for my microphone and one for the light rig that followed me wherever I went on stage. I had a catwalk and 10 dancers. I did 15 costume changes during the course of the show.” But in December of that year, she broke her leg in a skiing accident, which left her with no choice but to tone the theatrics way down.
McEntire says her six seasons on a sitcom also influenced her in simplifying her image and finding her authentic self, the down-to-earth Reba her fans relate to so easily. “From doing the Reba show, I felt like I had been in people’s living rooms. I really am the regular, everyday Reba I played on the show. I wanted people to know that this is me. I’m Reba, and we’re buddies. We’re friends.”
Of course, McEntire’s fans loved her unconditionally – glitter and rhinestones or jeans and boots. Along with her own work ethic and love of music, her fans’ devotion has been a constant, which she does not take for granted. “It’s always been important to me to live my life as a good example, because you never know who’s watching, whose life is affected by you,” she says.
Music Her Way
Over the years, many fans have told McEntire her music inspired them to keep going, even when they were in despair. She knows firsthand how those fans felt because there was a time when the music saved her, too. While on tour in 1991, a twin-engine jet crashed with her tour manager and seven band members, killing all of them. McEntire and her manager-husband, Narvel Blackstock, had skipped the flight. She was recovering from bronchitis, and wanted to get a good night’s sleep before joining the band the next day.
Overwhelmed by grief, McEntire had trouble imagining working again without her performing family. But their memory and the thought of disappointing her fans got her back on stage again. She dedicated her next album, For My Broken Heart, to these friends who died so tragically. â€œMusic is so healing. It helped me express my pain and my confusion,â€ she says.
Since childhood, music has been a big part of McEntire’s life, one of the simple pleasures of growing up in a tightknit family on an 8,000-acre cattle ranch in southeast Oklahoma. Her mother was a schoolteacher and an accomplished singer who taught her children to sing and harmonize. Her father and grandfather were world champion steer ropers. Local rodeos provided early venues for Reba and her two siblings, who formed The Singing McEntires.
Her solo music career began when country artist Red Steagall heard her sing the national anthem at an Oklahoma City rodeo in 1974. Steagall was so impressed, he offered to help her establish a career in Nashville. The next year, she signed a contract with Mercury Records, which remained her label (later as the merged Polygram/Mercury/MCA) until 2008.
In the years since her 1977 self-titled debut album, the prolific vocalist has released 31 albums, lending her sassy contralto to the best songs she and her team can find. McEntire remembers learning how to take initiative and creative control early in her career. “I told Jimmy Bowen, who was head of the label at MCA at the time, “I don’t like these songs. I don’t like the instrumentation. I want to sing my kind of country, the kind I grew up with. Where’s the fiddle?” The producer told her to go find the songs herself. “I had no idea how to do that when I got started,” McEntire says. “But I tell you what, I figured it out.”
From tear-jerking ballads and classic country covers, to strong-woman anthems and story songs like “Fancy,” McEntire learned how to grab Nashville’s most winning tunes and make them her own.
Taking on Challenges
In the late ’80s, McEntire stepped up her game with music videos likened to miniature movies, complete with a story line and McEntire herself playing a character. It was unlike anything other artists were doing at the time, and it gave her the opportunity to embrace acting as a second career.
In 1990, McEntire jumped at the chance to play a leading role in the horror comedy Tremors. She successfully landed parts in several movies, including Rob Reiner’s 1994 film, North. She even starred as Annie Oakley in the made-for-TV movie Buffalo Girls before a six-month stint on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun. She spent the next six years starring in the WB sitcom Reba.
True to her nature, while focusing on acting during this period, McEntire remained open to all opportunities’ and second chances. She recalls a quirky accident that resulted in her taking the role in Annie Get Your Gun. Just before boarding the England-bound Concorde in New York with her husband, a runaway meal service cart knocked the airplane door off its hinges and the flight was canceled. The couple decided to make the most of their extended layover in New York and take in a Broadway play. They chose Annie Get Your Gun.
McEntire had previously been offered the starring role in the play, but turned it down because she didn’t want to stay in one place for six months. But during intermission, she looked at her husband and declared, “I have got to do this play.” She cleared her schedule and, after Cheryl Ladd’s run was up, McEntire jumped into the lead role for a six-month run in 2001. Critics and fans went crazy for her spirited portrayal of Annie Oakley, and she won the Theatre World Award for a Broadway stint that almost didn’t happen.
“I think we get lots of opportunities,” she says. “I don’t take one, sooner or later, God gives it to someone else. So now I think hard about it when chances show up. That’s exactly what happened when the TV show Reba came along; I was just rippin’ ready to take it.” Her role in the series, which ran from 2001 to 2007, garnered a Golden Globe nomination in 2005.
Keeping It Fresh
McEntire wasn’t quite “rippin’ ready” when a design company first approached her offering to develop a clothing line bearing her name. The initial designs missed the mark entirely, and her first answer was, “No way.” But she wanted to stretch herself and decided to take a second look, on the condition that she could establish the creative direction for the line. She tore pages out of magazines and catalogs to give designers a clear understanding of what an apparel collection named after Reba McEntire should look like. On a second attempt, a new design company presented spot-on samples, and the Reba collection soon established a strong foothold, retailing at Dillard’s stores since 2005.
McEntire found she enjoyed the challenge of such hands-on work in an entirely new arena. She finds juggling the varied demands of career and life to be invigorating. “With my short attention span, it’s great for me to have different interests and to be constantly switching gears,” she says. “I can easily go from my music to a business meeting where I’m selecting buttons, prints and colors, talking about designs for my collections. People think that must be a challenge for me, but I’d truly rather have a lot of different things going on at once. It keeps me fresh. If I’m on one subject for too long, I just burn out and get bored.”
Today’s Reba McEntire is a lot more relaxed, more jeans-and-boots than the sequins, big hair and showy vocal acrobatics of a decade and a half ago. She’s intent on keeping stress to a minimum, and she’s quick to admonish others to do the same.
“I keep doing this because I absolutely love what I do. I get jazzed! I love the music, the fresh blood, the new ideas,” she says. “But the most important thing I’m doing now is staying happy and staying healthy, spending time with my family and friends.”
And she has no intention of slowing down one bit. “Growing up on the ranch, one thing I was trained to do, no matter what, is to work. Dolly Parton and I talked about retiring, but then we just laughed and said, ‘What would we do if we retired? Find something else to get involved in, so why even bother retiring?'”
Now working with a new record label, Valory Music Co., for the first time in her career, she released her 31st album in August to her largest fan base ever. The album, Keep on Loving You, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts across all genres. The name, she says, was intended as a tribute to her fans.
Of this new chapter in her life, she has said, “I’m excited to be where I am in my life, at my age, that the radio is still playing my music and that fans still want to hear my music and see me perform. I’m very grateful, appreciative and blessed.”